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Photographing motion in the Landscape

Posted on 25th January, 2019

Photographing motion in the Landscape

Although a photograph is still, the landscape is a mixture of still and mobile elements. This begs the question – do you freeze movement, or blur it for creative effect? There is no simple answer to this. Your decision should be based on the circumstances and the type of result you desire – you will need to assess each picture-taking situation on its own merits. However, combined with the right viewpoint, there can be no doubt that the impression of motion can add interest, life and depth to your landscape images.

Movement can prove a powerful aesthetic and compositional tool. By intentionally blurring subject motion, your images will appear less static and, potentially, more atmospheric. The approach relies on there being a degree of movement within the landscape – for example, moving water, or wind blown foliage, crops or cloud. By employing a slow exposure, any subject motion occuring while the shutter is open will be rendered a blur.

Water is by far the most popular element to blur. Through the use of a lengthy exposure, large crashing waves or a cascading waterfall can be reduced to an ethereal milky blur. The effect is either one you love or hate. However, even ‘haters’ can’t deny that a degree of creative motion will often enhance a landscape image’s impact and atmosphere. As a result, it is a popular technique among the majority of photographers.


The theory is simple. By selecting a slow shutter speed – of 1/2sec or longer – subject motion will begin to blur, creating the impression of movement in your photographs. Although water is the most obvious subject, the technique can be applied to any moving element. For example, a field of swaying corn can create a rhythmic, flowing pattern in your foreground; while scudding clouds appear like brushstrokes. Wind blown flowers, grasses and leaves can also provide interest.

Blurred elements in your foreground will have the most impact on composition. Photographers can effectively generate their own foreground interest by exposing creatively. For example, you can employ motion in order to ‘create’ lines and shapes that enhance the composition.

In order to capture images of motion within the landscape, a sturdy tripod is essential – it will ensure you don’t add camera movement to that of the subject. Most likely, you will also require an Neutral Density (ND) filter. By absorbing light, the filter artificially lengthens exposure time. A filter with a three or four stop density will normally suffice. For more extreme effects, consider using a 10-stop version, for example LEE Filters Big Stopper

Exposure length is the key ingredient. The trick is to achieve enough motion that the effect looks intentional and creative – too little, or two much, and the shot will fail. Unfortunately, there is no magical formula to help photographers achieve the right effect. A good starting point is using an exposure of around 1/2-sec, but the optimum shutter length will be determined by the speed and direction of the movement and the effect you desire. For example, to blur drifting cloud, a shutter speed exceeding 10-seconds may be required. A good degree of trial and error is often needed; so don’t be afraid to take a sequence of shots, using different shutter lengths, in order to get ‘the shot’.

Timing can also be important. When photographing crops or grasses, you need to carefully release your shutter to coincide with gusts of wind. Every frame you take will capture motion differently – no two shots will ever be identical.